Thursday, November 29, 2012

On Reagan, Bigotry and Evolution

“I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.”
                                                                                    Mark Twain

In August of 1980, a former California governor chose to do an odd thing. Originally, before he was a governor, he’d been an actor in westerns portraying men with easy access to guns working out Civil War-era post-traumatic stress disorder. He was telegenic, he knew his part, and the rich loved him.
He showed up in an obscure town named Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he was to give his first speech after winning the Republican candidacy for president.
As we all know, many Americans still can’t point out Iraq or Afganistan on a wordless map, nor can they attach meaningful words to Philadelphia, Mississippi today. So, as we labor through our various manifestations of post-election depression, as we wonder mightily at where all this hatred is coming from and struggle with our very memories, the following are a few meaningful words I would like to attach to Philadelphia, Mississippi, which I fear has become yet another blank spot on the low-information map which we Americans seem to prefer these days for navigating around painful issues.
Philadelphia, Mississippi was the town where three civil rights workers--James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner--were murdered by the Klan only sixteen years before Reagan showed up, in 1964, the same year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. In fact, the murders of the three young men during the civil rights action known as Freedom Summer was one of the big straws that finally broke Jim Crow’s back in Mississippi and the South, and compelled the nation’s first Southern president since the Civil War into finally passing any civil rights act at all.
Freedom Summer, in turn, was organized by a lot of groups, but the main one was the now-legendary Students’ Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was a group of young people who believed in doing things that were seen as presumptuous and threatening to the powerful. Sit-ins, freedom rides, marches on Washington, things that would get them jailed, beat up, killed. They were willing, in other words, to put it all on the line in a commitment for justice we provincial citizens haven’t seen the likes of since. Not surprisingly, these kids became more powerful than the seemingly-insurmountable powerful interests they opposed, and in the process they invented concepts and phrases still widely held in contempt by those who would still keep them down. For instance, one of SNCC’s presidents, Stokely Carmichael, popularized the term “Black Power”, a phrase that defeated segregationists in the South found presumptuous at best.  And the presumptuous goal of Stokely Carmichael and the murdered men during the Freedom Summer of ’64?  To register eligible voters.  
That shadow you may be sensing peering over your shoulder is the ghost of madame Déjà vu. We’ve been here before, haven’t we?
As with so many other campaign speeches coming from freshly-minted presidential candidates, Reagan’s speech was a calculated one, carefully crafted to set the tone for the candidate’s trajectory into history, and, as in real estate, armed conflict and other human endeavors, location was considered important. Reagan obviously chose Philadelphia, Mississippi out of approximately four million square miles of word-challenged United States territory for a specific reason: to aim his trajectory into history, and he did not mince his words. In an open ploy to woo working-class Americans away from paying attention to their own best interests, Reagan declared that “states’ rights” and truncated interpretations of the U.S. Constitution that would shrink the government’s power to regulate those who felt entitled to unregulated wealth, bigotry or both would be his central themes. Of course these were the very themes the South had used a century earlier to defend their “peculiar institution” and to forever justify the resultant Jim Crow century.
Reagan didn’t quite go so far as to call for a rebirth of the Confederacy, but in the eyes of all the white voters who openly resented the Civil Rights Act, “Black Power”, and who secretly carried the murders of Philadelphia, Mississippi within their own troubled souls, he did a good job of acting like he did. Madame Déjà vu was running a full-on cathouse, selling memories if nothing else.
Bigotry, like nuclear war, is a revelation you can rely on. The dread of both will sit there unexposed, invisible until it’s stirred and forced to the fore, floats for a while like sun specks on the skin of your eyes, temporarily annoying. Then gone just as quickly, denied and forgotten even though it’s swimming right before your eyes, like a shark, or sun specks.
Follow the thread of the cloth and it’s easy to see why we disengage before we trace the subject home. Be thankful, I guess, that it all comes so easy for us, but I still have a couple of questions. Is bigotry uniquely human and if not, does our uniquely-human bigotry necessarily steer us towards environmental catastrophe to the point of our own extinction? I mean, is it natural to be a bigot, or are we really the only beings on this planet hell-bent on destroying ourselves? Are there any studies? Ants, maybe? Wasps? Didn’t the Nazis have ‘God Is With Us’ stamped on every German soldier’s belt buckle? 
In other words, if we’re so smart, shouldn’t we evolve or something?